Archive for the ‘Spirits’ Category

Two Great Grappas

May 8, 2017

Anyone who has ever had a meal with me knows I am an unrelenting grappista. I long ago stopped being embarrassed by it. Now, if a grappa hasn’t been offered, I just unashamedly ask for one at the end of meal – sometimes before the end, if the meal is an exceptionally ample or long one. My fellow diners variously display interested looks or skeptically lifted eyebrows – until the first aroma of the grappa reaches them. Then, many join me in the sybaritic pleasure of one of the world’s great digestifs.

Most readers of this blog have heard – read? – me say this before. What prompted this outburst was my tasting and immediate acquisition, back in March, of two splendid grappas that I had not known before: Venegazzù Grappa di Capo di Stato and Albino Armani’s Grappa di Amarone. I would go so far as to say these are two of the best grappas I have come upon in a long time. But let me start at the beginning.

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A group of New York wine journalists, arriving in Verona the day before this year’s Amarone Anteprima opened, and knowing there would not be much time for relaxing once the event started, got together for dinner that evening. Guided by Charles Scicolone’s familiarity with Verona restaurants (he is a veteran of many a Vinitaly), we found our way to Ristorante Al Pompiere, just a short way from the Piazza Brà.

The restaurant was comfortable, the food was excellent, and at the end of the meal I asked our waiter for a grappa chiara e con fuoco – clear and fiery. He complied splendidly with a bottle of the Venegazzù estate’s Grappa Capo di Stato, of which we all partook with considerable pleasure. It was not merely clear and fiery, but also elegant and complex. So fine was it that I persuaded the restaurant to sell me a bottle, since I didn’t want to take any chance of not finding it elsewhere.

I was wise to do so – Charles is still kicking himself that he didn’t – since it doesn’t seem to be widely distributed outside of Europe. I try not to write about items that you can’t get in the US, but sometimes something is so good I feel I should just let people know about it. Besides, enough of my readers travel to Europe, and so could acquire a bottle there. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

The wines of Venegazzù used to be more widely available in the States than they seem to be at present, but they are still as distinguished as they ever were. The estate, in the Treviso region of the Veneto, was originally founded by descendants of Conte Loredan Gasparini, a Doge of Venice.

It has now been acquired by the Palla family, who have continued the high standards set by the original owners. The red wines in particular have always been models of terroir-driven elegance, even though the grapes were and still are French: Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet franc, and Malbec. They are what make Venegazzù’s banner wine, Capo di Stato, and its vinaccia in turn makes the wonderful grappa I’ve been raving about.

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My second great grappa came at lunch the next day. How’s that for an auspicious start to a trip?! My second winery visit of that morning was to the Albino Armani vineyards, one of the highest in the Valpolicella/Amarone zone. It’s also one of the newest, a beautifully stylish, efficient, and eco-friendly installation run by a scion of a family that has been making wine in northern Italy since 1607.

After leading us through a tasting of his whole line of wines – all impressive – Signor Armani served us a mercifully light and tasty lunch, which he followed by pouring small snifters of his Grappa di Amarone. Bliss! Clear as ice water – it was lightly chilled, which enhanced its heady aroma – smooth, elegant, with warmth in its long, long finish, this grappa was every bit as stylish as a name like Armani might suggest, and just as welcome and soothing a digestif as the previous night’s revelation. I floated on a cloud of well-being through the rest of the day’s winery visits. Needless to say, I acquired a bottle of this grappa too before moving on.

Armani’s Grappa di Amarone is, I am very happy to say, available here in the US. Total Wine & More, a multi-state chain, carries it: I don’t know whether that is an exclusive, but like the Venegazzù grappa, this is a bottle worth searching for. I believe it retails for around $50, which I regard as a bargain for a brandy of this quality.

Great Grappa: Marolo

October 22, 2015

It’s no news to any of my regular readers that I love grappa. I have always loved it. Even before it was fashionable, even before what was available here in the US was really good, even when all one could get was thought of as Truckers’ Breakfast, even when some of it gave white lightning a good name, I loved grappa.

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And now that the Italian national distillate has become a fashionable object of pride and connoisseurship, when it has become available from every region and every wine zone and practically every grape variety, I love it all the more. I feel as if my fidelity and devotion are being rewarded, and the grappa gods are smiling on me.

So you can imagine the sense of beatitude I felt when I found out recently that Marolo grappas are going to become more readily available here. Marolo is one of my favorite distillers: I’ve not tasted all of its products, because it produces a great number of different grappas, but I haven’t yet had one I didn’t like – a lot. So this news was elating for me: I had to find out which grappas would be coming to the US, where they would be available, how soon I could get some. Gimme gimme, gimme.

Those of you who don’t know grappa have of course no idea what all this fuss is about. After all, in essence grappa is just another distillate, and in some respects one of the simplest of them, especially since a lot of us grappa tifosi think the clear, unaged ones are the best. Grappas are distilled not from wine or from fruit but from pomace, the solids left after the fermentation of the grapes, what is called in Italian vinaccia.

The Marolo Distillery

The Marolo Distillery

The best of them are made from the vinaccia of a single grape variety, and they are distilled while the vinaccia is still very fresh. Barolo-maker Bruno Ceretto, who knows his grappa, told me many years ago that grappa should be made the way the moonshiners do: quick, quick, quick. Done that way, the varietal aromas and even some of the varietal flavor make it through the distillation process and into the crystalline liquid that flows slowly out of the still after hours of boiling and refining and condensation. That’s why, during the harvest season, devoted still masters don’t sleep, or if they do, it’s alongside their carefully tended copper vessels. Their wives may complain (and they do: I’ve heard them), but grappa, like science, is a demanding mistress.

Barolo grappaMy mention of a Barolo maker wasn’t incidental or accidental. The Marolo distillery is located just outside of Alba, in the heart of Barolo/Barbaresco country, and one of the firm’s ambitions is to become the Nebbiolo distiller. So the initial consignment of Marolo grappas to this country focuses mostly on Nebbiolo and Barolo grappas. The list includes a clear, young Barolo grappa as well as Barolo grappas aged 9, 12, 15, and 20 years. The latter, as you might expect, looks inky dark from the color leached into it in its years of aging in barriques that had previously been used to age Marsala.

Marolo is also sending other Piedmont specialties: a clear Moscato grappa and a slightly aged one (five years in barrels that previously aged passiti from Pantelleria) called Dopo Moscato.
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3 marolo grappas

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The importer, Premium Brands (distributed by Martin Scott), is bringing in as well Marolo’s Brunello grappa, which I believe is, or used to be, distilled from the vinaccia of Angelo Gaja’s Montalcino vineyard, Santa Restituta, plus an intriguing Gewurztraminer grappa from vinaccia from the Alto Adige, plus the Marolo firm’s only blended, non-monovarietal grappa, a very pleasing Amarone grappa, lightly aged in small used Amarone barrels, as is the Veneto tradition.

Lovely as these are, they represent only a fraction of Marolo’s line. Really, the firm is a Piedmont-varieties specialist, not just a Nebbiolo master, and it makes sterling grappas from all the important Piedmont grapes. I particularly love its clear, fragrant Barbera grappa, and I hope to see it on the market here soon.

barbera grappa

A Quick Report on Spain

May 26, 2015

While I wasn’t in Spain on a wine trip, I didn’t – of course – stop drinking wine, or at least trying to. Which didn’t turn out to be as easy as you might think, in the nation that boasts the world’s largest acreage of vineyards.

Old head-trained vines in Extremadura

 

We were staying in mostly simple rural hotels and eating at mostly simple rural cafes and restaurants – it was a birding trip, after all – where wine lists were brief (occasionally nonexistent) and concentrated on very local wines. Most of the people around us were drinking beer and soft drinks (Coca Cola seems to have Spain in thrall), even when – as we discovered is quite usual in Spain – wine is included in the price of the meal.

On some occasions, this was completely understandable. We had one or two meals where the local wine on offer gave plonk a good name. We also had two or three occasions when we were able to get quite good wines. But most of the time it was pretty ordinary stuff, drinkable and pleasant but in no way memorable. So there will no great revelations here (I’m at least as disappointed as you are), just a brief recounting of the most interesting bottles we hit upon.

Oh! One surprise, before I get started: Sherry is now next to impossible to find in Spain. I remember that in the past it was ubiquitous, and even simple bars offered a choice of finos, plus a manzanilla and/or an amontillado, with usually a PX lurking somewhere among the bottles. But not now. We hit upon the occasional fino, and once a manzanilla, but that was it for Sherry. We’d gotten better choices on our Iberia flights than we did in the rural parts of the peninsula.

The most widely available wine we found was, not surprisingly, Rioja, and we were pleased to drink it when it was offered. Several producers were not familiar to me (which was predictable), and the most widely available of the bigger, regularly imported producers was the ever-reliable Cune. A Cune 2007 Riserva was the one of the two oldest wines we drank on the trip – very enjoyable, with real elegance and restraint. Most wines were considerably younger, with four- or five-year-old Crianza Rioja serving as the major mature wine on most of the simple wine lists we saw.

 

Three Riojas

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The Parador de Cervera, in the Castile and Leon region, provided the one significant exception: a lovely bottle of Rioja Riserva 2008 from RemelluriRemelluri. A little post-trip research revealed that this was a truly traditional producer, whose 140 hectares of vineyards straddle the Rioja Alevesa and the Rioja Alta. Its Rioja Riserva contained not just Tempranillo but also Garnacia and Graciano, plus the white grapes Viura and Malvasia. This is – or was – the traditional kind of mixture of grapes that made Rioja, just as Chianti used to contain a mixture of white grapes and local red varieties beyond Sangiovese. I am happy to report that it made a very, very elegant wine, serene and harmonious – the best wine of our trip.

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White wines presented a much more mixed picture. Where Tempranillo was the ubiquitous, workhorse grape variety among reds, no single variety dominated among the whites. We had some decent and some indifferent Albarinos and Verdejos, as well as a number of whites blended of local varieties either unnamed or indecipherable on the label. Some of these latter showed a touch of fresh citric fruit and minerality, some were just blah.

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Four white wines

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The best of the whites, for freshness, pleasing, racy fruit, and consistent enjoyability, were unquestionably those fermented from a grape the labels called Macabeo. This turned out to be another name for the grape most of us know better as Viura. I was familiar with it from Catalonia, where it is blended into Cava, as well as being vinified and bottled solo. It appears to be the most popular white grape in the Rioja region also, which means that, with those strongholds in the northwest and southeast of the country, Viura/Macabeo amounts to the most widely available white wine in Spain – which is a fine thing, since it makes so pleasing a wine.

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Finally, I need to say a word about Spanish brandy. Spanish brandy looks and tastes very different from French: usually darker and sweeter, often with a slightly caramelized edge. It’s not what I want every day, but it follows a large Spanish dinner very well – and dinners all tend to be large, so we had recourse to it more often than we expected during our stay.

There are two chief kinds, both very fine: Sherry-based brandy – Brandy de Jerez – and brandy from, and based on, Malaga. Sherry is self-explanatory, but Malaga may need some introduction. The Sherry region lies northwest of Gibraltar, while Malaga lies about the same distance northeast. Its rich, dark dessert wine, made from Pedro Ximénez and a variety of Muscat grapes, used to be quite famous, but went even more deeply than most into the eclipse that the world’s great dessert wines endured. Lately, Malaga shows some signs of reviving as a wine, but it has never lost favor as the source of some of Spain’s best brandies. We enjoyed both kinds. Of the Jerez brandies, our favorites were Cardinal Mendoza, Gran Duque d’Alba, and Lepanto. Of the Malaga brandies, our hands-down favorite was 1866, which is a great brandy by any measure.

P.S. Diane’s blog has a post about some of the things we ate in Spain.

Let Us Now Praise After-Dinner Drinks

August 18, 2014

I know summer is not supposed to be the time for thinking about, much less consuming, brandies, but I can’t help it: I’m addicted. For me, nothing completes an enjoyable dinner as well as a fine digestivo – or digestif, if you prefer. Whichever you call it, those names indicate exactly what that little tot does: Settle in the good food you’ve just ingested and comfortably begin the process of digesting it.

Not that I need to have eaten to the point of discomfort: far from it. I’m talking about a good, modest dinner, not a Coney Island hot dog eating contest. Perhaps in my distant youth I might have been interested in some such marathon, but these days I couldn’t even if I wanted to: Age and metabolic changes (they will come to all of us) have drastically reduced my consumption. Diane and I together now can’t finish a T-bone steak that once would have been just right for one of us. Our capacity is way down, but that doesn’t make a juicy piece of beef any less delicious:  Now more than ever, it’s quality that counts, not quantity – just as, with wine, it has always been quality that mattered more than alcohol.

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So the only question in my mind is not whether one should end a good meal with a little snocker of something, but with which one?  Armagnac?  Calvados? Cognac? A fruit eau de vie? Grappa?  Marc?  Tequila?  Single-malt whisky? And which one of the many in each category?  There’s no easy answer to that: Each has its niche. And it isn’t just a question of the great diversity of these drinks. No: It’s also the fact that each one of these spirits alters with the food you’ve consumed before it. That can be most obvious in the case of grappa, where the same specimen will sometimes smell freshly fruity and sometimes reek like aged Parmigiano, but it is equally true of spirits seemingly more well-defined, like Cognac or Armagnac, which, when they are not exactly what the doctor ordered, can be either too fiery or too sweet, depending on what foods they’re following.

I know only one way to determine which little tot to choose on any given evening: Pull the cork and sniff the bottle. Usually, the meal’s flavors in your mouth and scents in your nose will point to a broad category of spirits: an Alsace fruit eau de vie, or a Piedmontese or a Tuscan grappa, for instance. But after that, only taking a good sniff from a bottle or two or three will make clear to you whether you want Framboise or Poire, Barbera or Moscato, Sangiovese or Canaiolo – or maybe you want to go in a completely other direction and pour yourself a wee dram of peaty, smoky, seaweedy Oban or Talisker.

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I’ve enjoyed all of the above at different times and in different circumstances, and each has had its moment when it seemed like the only taste in the world that could fit that moment. Equally, I’ve had times when I sniffed the bottle and thought “Why in the world would I ever drink that?”  The process is always illuminating, and the result is always fun, haphazard as it may be.

What actually causes these changes, in the drink and/or in my perception of it, I don’t really know. Science has other things on its mind, and no wine journalist I know of has made a serious study of this phenomenon – but it strikes me as far more interesting and pertinent to day-to-day gastronomic contentment than the molecular composition of any of Ferran Adria’s foams. That’s not the chemistry I’m interested in. Much of my contentment and my health, both mental and physical, derive from the day-to-day experimental science of the table and its pleasures.

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Recently, I’ve been spending more time than I really want to with members of the medical profession – nothing life-threatening, but a few symptoms that are quality-of-life disturbing – and some MDs seem both unfamiliar with the concept of pleasure and incapable of pronouncing words like “wine” or “cognac” or even “beer.”  To the puritanical breed of White Coats, there is only Alcohol; and it’s all the same, and it’s a poison. No matter how healthy your liver and kidneys, brains and guts may be, it’s poison, and if you “use” it, you’re killing yourself.

I’ve given up asking such doctors whether metabolisms aren’t sufficiently different to make generalizations like that useless, and pointing out that I don’t plan to live forever and would willingly trade off a few years of gustatory boredom for a slightly shorter span of intense palatal pleasure. That’s my version of the choice of Achilles. Sadly, such MDs don’t seem to even comprehend the alternatives.

Not all are like that, of course: Occasionally I come across a sybarite who, while poking my torso in search of overripe spots, happily picks my brain for wine suggestions. Maybe I should bill them for the consultation?

All this is not as far off my subject as it might at first appear. It’s no accident that brandies and whiskies and that whole class of distilled drinks used to be known as cordials. They were thought to be – and I think they are – good for your heart. And remember, many are still called eaux de vie, and eau de vie means water of life. Now that I think of it, that too is what whisky means. I don’t think any of this etymological convergence is accidental. Stoking digestion is good for you, and doing so with a complex and delicious, gently fiery small glass of spirits (again, the word is no accident) is one of the more brilliant inventions of our flawed civilization.

Whisky, You’re the Devil

October 7, 2013

Once upon a time, I toured the Highlands of Scotland with a small group of journalists. The Scotch Whisky Institute sponsored the trip, and it was very well organized. Nine o’clock every morning found us at the first of the three or four single malt distilleries we would visit that day, and at ten o’clock precisely, every morning, the manager or master distiller who was guiding us would look impishly at his watch and ask, “Now would ye care for a wee dram?”

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Distillery

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We discovered, on the first day of the trip and to its organizers’ deep consternation, that I was the only member of the press contingent who actually drank Scotch. The others had just been told by their editors that they would take this trip and write the story. Those were the days when “life style” articles were thought to require no expertise: How the world has changed!

Anyhow, that left it up to me to take one for the team – every day. I did so happily, and enjoyed the Highlands thoroughly, and – oh yes! – learned quite a bit about fine Scotch whisky. Before that trip, I had liked single malts. During it, I developed a passion for them that stays with me to this day. Many evenings, I will happily choose a good Scotch – by which I definitely mean a single malt – for my post-prandial digestive, even over my beloved grappa.

It always surprises me to find how many wine lovers think it’s somehow wrong to finish a meal with a whisky. Perhaps it’s some sophisticated echo of the old wino’s fear of mixing “the grape and the grain,” which schoolboys probably still think will make you sick – at least they did when I was a schoolboy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Single malts are as refined and as varied (even more, truth to tell) as Cognacs and Armagnacs, and almost as numerous and as highly differentiated as grappas.

Northern Scotland

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Oban

All are, as the name implies, distilled from malted and then fermented barley and only from barley. Blended Scotches contain grain whiskies – often a preponderance of the blend – as well as barley whiskies. Single malts, by contrast, are the thing itself, with all its nuances of terroir, malting of the barley, and water – especially water. You would not believe what a difference the source of its water can make to a Scotch. This is why so many distilleries cluster in northeast Scotland, in the valley of the river Spey. These Speyside malts are among the most elegant and distinguished of all Scotches. My favorite among their number is Oban, an incomparably complex and smooth aqua vitae.*

Islay maltsBut Speyside is just a small part of the Highlands, and fine single malts are made all through there – The Macallen is a great one – as well as in the Lowlands, Campbeltown, the islands, and Islay. The latter is probably my very favorite source of Scotches. All the Islay whiskies are marked by intense peatiness and brininess – the aroma, as my wife remarks, wrinkling her nose in distaste, of smoky beach fires and long-weathered seaweed. For most people, that’s enough to send them back to cognac, but for confirmed single malt drinkers, it’s sheer bliss. Laphroaig and Lagavulin have comforted me on many a chilly winter night and eased along that one-too-many tiny last slice of leg of lamb or apple pie.

TaliskerIslay is the only one of the numerous islands off Scotland’s western and northern coast to have its own recognized appellation, but the other islands also produce notable whiskies – especially Talisker, the only whisky produced on the Isle of Skye, a fabled spot in Scottish history. It was to Skye that Bonnie Prince Charlie fled in 1745 after the disaster of Culloden (massacre, Scots still call it), and it was from Skye that with the aid of its ancestral lairds, the MacDonalds, he escaped to France, leaving behind an abiding nostalgia for “the king over the water,” some beautiful folk songs, and the recipe for Scotland’s national liqueur, Drambuie.

All single malt distilleries bottle different versions of their whiskies at different ages. I prefer the relatively younger ones – between 10 and 16 years of age – because I find that beyond that they become a bit over-refined. I like them still with a bit of fire, and tasting more of where they came from than of the barrels they’ve been aging in. That’s what makes them so different from each other and so endlessly fascinating.

* Correction: Oban remains complex and smooth, but it’s not from Speyside. It’s a Highland whisky, as Ole Udsen points out in his comment.

Burton Anderson’s New Blog; and Some Wines that Surprised Me

January 21, 2012

Burton Anderson has started a blog. If you are below a certain age threshold, that announcement may not make you sit up and take notice, but for seriously ancient winos like myself, that news is electric. For those who love Italian wines, Burt Anderson is the maestro, the pioneer, the guy who got there first and first pulled it all together so that it made sense to the rest of us. His book Vino was the eye-opener, and is still an enjoyable and useful read, after 30 years. Everyone who has written about Italian wine since owes Burton an enormous debt, whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not. And very few who have written about Italian wine since have done so with the style, thoroughness, and total honesty that Burt brought to the task. And now he is bringing the same qualities to a blog.

As his title indicates, this blog is about more than wine: he is turning out some his best writing yet on a whole range of subjects, Italian, cultural, and topical. In my not-especially-humble opinion, the blogosphere needs more good writing like Burt’s and more of his kind of directness.

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And now, as Monty Python would say, for something completely different. Every now and again I taste anew a wine I thought I was familiar with or a wine I’ve never encountered before. I’ve rounded up a few of those “Aha!” experiences to share with you.

Villa Matilde Falanghina 2006.  I drank this five-year-old in late November 2011, with smoked sturgeon toasts and shrimps creole. Falanghina is a grape and a wine I love, but I usually drink it in its second or third year. So I was nervous about the age: I seemed to have lost sight of the bottle and forgotten that I had it. Although the nose seemed fine – maybe a little sherry hint, but nothing off-putting – the color when poured terrified me. It was not just gold, but orangey gold, more than a little strange. The flavor, however, was just perfect: definitely Falanghina, but past its initial freshness and into dried-fruit sensations – apricot, Diane says; some dried fig too, I thought, but minus the sugar. It worked beautifully with both dishes, and drank just fine by itself as well. Who knew the grape took any age at all? Much less that it took it so gracefully? Yet one more proof that well-made Italian white wines can last.

Li Veli Verdeca 2010. A white from an endangered grape in Puglia. Lovely stuff: medium to full body, earthy, with mushroomy notes: a real food wine – vaguely Burgundian in its bulk on the palate, but emphatically Italian in its flavors and minerality. Made by the Falvo brothers, who achieved fame for many years at Avignonesi in the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano zone. In 1999 they acquired an old vineyard property in one of the most historic wine areas of Puglia, the Val d’Itria. They have sold their interest in Avignonesi and moved themselves to Puglia, where, among other things, they began the Askos project, an attempt to revive some of the most ancient varieties of the zone. On the basis of this wine, I’d say they seem to be about to do great things. We drank this Verdeca with a Basque hake with green sauce (predominantly garlic-flavored) which it took perfectly in stride.

Chave Celeste St. Joseph blanc 2007.  Enjoyed with a good lunch at brasserie Artisanal, this was not only a reminder of how good the white wines of the Rhône can be, but also a revelation of just how skilled a winemaker is the house of Chave. I think of Chave, first of all – and up until this point perhaps exclusively – as a red wine producer. The house is most famous – and rightly so – for its Hermitage, which is one of the greatest red wines of the Rhône. Some consider it the supreme rendition of that appellation, a wine of great depth and age-worthiness. This four-year-old white gave every indication of the same kind of age-worthiness – it was still fresh and vital – along with amazing nuance. It showed the kind of slate-and-wet-stones-with-dry-apricot that some connoisseurs associate primarily with Condrieu, which it more and more reminded me of with every sip. And at a small fraction of the cost! I should be surprised like this every day.

Formentini Pinot Grigio 2010. I used to know this wine as another one of the faceless “cocktail-style” Pinot grigios that Italy has been pouring out for decades now. Well, there have been big changes at Formentini, and this is no longer an airhead Pinot grigio to gulp at the bar. Now vinified from high-altitude plantings of low yield, and gingerly handled in the cellar, it has become a very interesting, medium-bodied wine to serve with dinner. Sure, you can still drink it enjoyably as an aperitif – but it now has complexity and character enough to be far more enjoyable with a good roast chicken or a delicate veal scallop. It’s a nice reminder of what Pinot grigio is capable of when some care is taken with it.

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And one after-dinner drink:

Clear Creek Grappa. Color me flabbergasted. An American grappa that tastes like the real thing! Who knew? It fooled me completely: I thought I had been handed a rather fine Italian distillate. This Oregon distillery uses local fruits and distills them in a very traditional manner to make a whole range of grappas and eaux de vie. On the basis of the single example of its work I’ve so far tasted, I have a lot of pleasant exploration ahead of me.

Grappa: The Warm Ghost of the Grape

January 24, 2011

In winter, a young (or especially a not-so-young) man’s thoughts lightly turn to grappa. Once feared as the diesel fuel of brandies, grappas have now become one of the most fashionable of drinks, shedding their working-class image as the Alpine trucker’s favorite breakfast – and a lot of their character – to become sleek and polished. Most Italian restaurants of any claim to sophistication now boast an array of grappas, though not of the depth and variety of the grappa cart that you will find at, for instance, Cecchino dal 1887 in Rome’s Monte Testaccio district. My own collection once numbered 23 bottles. It has now dwindled to 11, and many of those are perilously low. I’m going to have to do some serious buying soon.

My pathetically dwindling grappa collection

Don’t get me wrong: those numbers are not just for swank, nor am I exclusively grappa-obsessed. I love Armagnac and Cognac and calvados and aged tequila, and they all have their place – but none of those offers the variety and versatility of grappa. There is no better digestivo, and in one of its old-fashioned roles – to tone up a cup of espresso on a raw winter day, such as we’re having an abundance of this winter – nothing comes close to the warmth generated by grappa.

But the main reason I like to keep so many grappas around is simply grappa’s wondrous variety. Cognac or Armagnac is essentially one thing, while grappa is legion. Grappas are as varied as their sources, and their sources are from all over Italy. Furthermore, they differ from each other not just because of where in Italy they originate, but also because of what grapes contribute their essences to their begetting.

Cognac and Armagnac, each named for the almost neighboring regions of their origin, are brandies distilled from wines. In both cases, the most common grape used is Ugni blanc, better known to Italian winelovers as Trebbiano, which rarely yields a wine of distinction but can make some excellent brandy. There are some variations, to be sure – it matters if a Cognac comes from the Fine Champagne or Bons Bois or Borderies areas; and a few really superior Armagnacs are distilled from Colombard or Folle blanche wines.

A farily typical selection of grappas from an Italian restaurant

Grappa on the other hand comes from pomace, the solids left at the bottom of the fermenting tank when the wine is drawn off for aging or blending. These are soaked and refermented, and that liquid is then distilled. Each distillate holds the scent and often a tiny ghost of the flavor of the grape variety from which it is made. So grappas are as numerous as the grape varieties their makers chose to ferment, modified by the soils in which the grapes grew, modified by the choices the grappaiolo made about the number and kind of filtrations, whether to age or not, and if so in what. In the broadest stylistic difference, the grappa maker has to opt for either a forte or a morbida grappa – a grappa stronger and more obviously alcoholic, lightly fiery in a style that tips its cap to grappa traditions, or softer, more obviously fruit-inflected, in the modern style that has become internationally popular. That adds up to a bounty of grappas, an abundance of differently nuanced brandies that readily explains why I never seem to have quite enough of them on hand.

Moreover, grappas vary not only in their origins and basic character, but also with what you’ve eaten. I can’t explain this, but empirically I know it to be true. A classic, clear grappa di Barbera, for instance, such as one gets from the Fratelli Marolo distillery, just by itself gives a clear, sharp aroma of its grapes and a similar, though fainter, palatal impression of the Barbera from which it started. With different foods, however, it can smell – and taste – either of the grape, as just described, or floral, or even like aged parmigiano cheese. (Oddly enough, the more chilled a grappa is, the more forceful its aroma. I don’t pretend to understand that either, but empirically I know it to be true.)  That’s why, after dinner, I like to sniff a few grappas and choose the one that’s working well with the meal I’ve just eaten. It’s fun, always instructive, and totally uncomplicated.   A simple smell test – just open the bottle and pass it under your nose, inhaling – will tell you whether the grappa in your hand is the one you want in your glass. Brandy professionals buy and sell, blend and isolate, not by tasting (they wouldn’t last long if they did), but by scent alone. It can work the same way with grappa, and it doesn’t take hound-like olfactory abilities to do it: Ordinary human equipment works just fine.

Two different styles of grappa: a clear, monovarietal distillate of Carricante pomace from Benante's prized Mr. Etna vineyards; and a mixed-pomace grappa, slightly wood-aged, Nardini's popular Stravecchio

I retain my fondness for the more old-fashioned grappas, unaged and crystal-clear, smelling of their vinaccia, and tasting ever so slightly fiery – though there are many modern-style grappas that I also greatly respect. But you never really get over your first love. Nowadays, that kind of grappa is not always easy to find. Many are being wood-aged, which moves them closer to Cognacs and Armagnacs in style, and to that extent denatures them. Many are blends of different grapes, which makes them stand in the same relation to a monovarietal grappa as blended Scotch stands to single-malt whisky. And many are now distilled from wines or even whole fruit – these are often labeled eau de vie or ue. But the use of either of those terms isn’t consistent: Some (what I consider real) grappas are labeled eau de vie as well.

Despite the fact that grappa-making has now spread through all of Italy, the traditional heartlands of grappa are still the most likely sources for really top-notch distillates: the north – Alto Adige and especially Piedmont, the Veneto, and Friuli – and Tuscany. The Veneto produces some of the most characterful aged grappas, the color of Cognac but still retaining intense grappa scents and character. Piedmont, Friuli, and Tuscany make lovely unaged grappas. Look for single-varietal bottles such as those from Pojer e Sandri (Alto Adige) or Fratelli Marolo (Piedmont) or the Morellino grappa of Jacopo Biondi Santi. Or for estate grappas, such as those from Castellare, Fontodi, or Monte Vertine in the Chianti Classico zone or Banfi in the Brunello di Montalcino zone. Sip and savor them just as you would a fine Cognac, and add a whole new digestive dimension to your life.

À la Recherche du Temps Perdu

March 22, 2010

As our long New York winter was drawing to its close, Diane and I found ourselves driven more and more to comfort foods – warm stews and braises – and lingering even longer than usual at table. We prolonged each dinner, and added warmth to each chilly evening, with a good brandy and conversation. The latter often enough turned on what we were eating and drinking – where we’d first had it, what was the best of it, where we’d had that. Inevitably, one evening, while sipping a lovely Sempé Armagnac, we began reminiscing about a 1981 trip we took through Armagnac country (Almost 30 years ago! How can that be?) and our meeting with the formidable Senator Sempé himself.

A present-moment interlude here, before lapsing into the pleasures of memory. As we drank and talked that evening, we discovered that the bottle of Sempé we were almost finishing – our favorite Armagnac, the one we turn to most days – was our last. This led to diligent searching over the next few days and, ultimately, the horrid discovery that we couldn’t find it anywhere in New York City or online. Catastrophe! And inexplicable to us.

Disaster was ultimately averted by a few purchases and some comparative tasting, the upshot of which was that Armagnac de Montal VSOP tasted enough like our beloved Sempé to fill the gap. We also liked Chateau de Laubade Bas Armagnac VSOP, but it was a bit sweeter and a touch more polished – not defects by any means, but they marked it for more specialized roles than our all-purpose Sempé.

Almost-empty Sempé and its colleagues

Back to the post-prandial discussion, which was almost derailed by differences in our recollections of a few key events. That led to Diane’s scouring her archives to find the journal that she kept of the trip and digging out – from our thousands of aging slides – some of the photos we took then. Ah, nostalgia! Oh, how I miss my dark hair and black moustache! Not to mention my then-amazing appetite! I could hardly believe the meals we ate then, at lunch and at dinner: Nowadays I’d live for a week on one or two of them – and I don’t regard that as an improvement, whatever the nutritionists may say.

Armagnac country overlaps foie gras country, which means that our days traveling therein were a gastronomic tour de force (all puns intended), with meals of foie gras cold and foie gras hot, duck in all forms, cèpes and potatoes seethed in duck fat, rich cheeses, and pastries redolent of butter, all washed down with Cahors and Madiran and other rough red country wines, and finally tamped down by a fine Armagnac. Most restaurants of any standing had a handsome selection of old Armagnacs, often spanning decades. I remember them as ethereal – the lightest spirits of air and fire – as well as effective, working like an intestinal rotorooter on those accretions of duck fat. Ah, then ‘twas bliss to be alive.

Here’s a sample day’s eating, from Diane’s journal, an October Saturday in Condom, the capital of the Armagnac zone:

Lunch at Cordeliers: menu gastronomique at 140 francs each. Salade d’écrevisses to start, about a half dozen succulent little beasts; no sauce offered and none needed. Then collops of lotte (monkfish) in sauce d’homard et épinards, the fish nicely gelatinous-chewy-tender, the sauce not too thick but just creamy enough. With these two courses we drank a bottle of Pacherenc. There followed aiguillettes de canard – not actual wings, but a magret sliced fanwise like the primary feathers of a bird’s wing. These came in a light brown sauce, unidentified but excellent. We drank a ’75 Madiran, which was quite different from the baby Madirans we’d had the night before – a wine deserving respect and even more aging. For dessert, Tom took fraises au crème fraiche and an île flottant; Diane had tarte au citron and the local flaky pastry thing whose name we’ve forgotten.

There followed an afternoon of visiting distillers and tasting Armagnacs, before we settled in for dinner at La Bonne Auberge:

We started with a salade de noix avec touts petits tranches de foie gras – Boston lettuce, escarole heart, walnut halves, walnut oil vinaigrette, and slices (not very petits) of a splendid foie gras. So much for our intentions of making a light dinner. Then we had palombes – the first of the season’s game: wood pigeons. They came with lovely browned balls of potato and cèpes sautéed in garlic and parsley. Palombes are terrific: dark, dark meat, rich and flavorful. More Madiran was required. We ended with coffee and île flottant with raspberry sauce – and Armagnac, of course – it was absolutely necessary for our survival.

The next day, we were brought to the Sempé distillery, where the Senator himself awaited us. This was no trivial event: The man was a distinguished member of the French Senate, and one of the few – perhaps the only – foreign citizen to be awarded the US Congressional Medal of Honor, for his role in rescuing downed American airmen in World War II.

Tom and Senator Sempe

And he had his standards. Before we were shown around the premises, we had to pass a little test – although, being a courteous Frenchman, he never identified it as such. Instead, I was simply presented with two small glasses of Armagnac and asked which of the two I preferred. For me it was no contest: The first glass was a nice Armagnac, round and warming, but the second glass was a whole other animal, at the same time fiery and smooth, mouth-filling and ethereal – a simply wonderful glass of spirits. I said so. Sempé said only: “It is the 1928. Would you like to visit the cellars?”

Gustave

Our guide, Gustave Ledun – the representative of the Armagnac association and a wonderful character in his own right – heaved a sigh of relief, and we all happily went on to taste some more splendid old Armagnacs from barrel and demijohn, culminating in an 1875 that was so light and spirituous that it all but evaporated on the tongue. A glorious visit, a grand brandy, a priceless memory. No wonder I love Armagnac.

Romano Levi: The Angels’ Share

February 9, 2010
Last May, I arrived in Alba about a week after Romano Levi died. Normally, Alba has a lot on its mind: The bustling, fashionable little city is the heart of the Barolo and Barbaresco zones, the center of the whole Langhe wine trade, and the capital of the white truffle universe. But not that week. Every wall, every post, bore memorial notices mourning the passing of il grappaiolo angelico.

Almost every shop window – not just wine stores, but grocery stores, book stores, clothing stores – held displays of Romano Levi’s grappa bottles, all with his immediately identifiable line drawings, simple black-and-red sketches of shining suns and his famous “wild woman,” la donna selvatica. Stacks of bottles stared at me from every window – and nobody would sell me a single one.

(Photos courtesy of Lorenzo Conterno, www.romanolevi.net.)

Respect? Veneration? The wish to keep a relic, now that there would be no more? Or greed, speculating that now that there would be no more, the prices would rise? Who knows? That ambivalence, the question mark erected by the inescapable cash nexus, is a hallmark of our times. The wonder is that it overtook Romano Levi only after his death: All his life, he resisted it with a simplicity of heart and intention that justified his posthumous title, the Angelic Grappa-maker.

Il grappaiolo angelico

I can’t claim to be a friend of Romano Levi, much as I wish I could. I met him on a few occasions – the first by courtesy of Angelo Gaja, who in those days sent his vinaccie (the solids left over after fermenting the grape juice: in English, pomace) to Levi to be distilled into grappa – and I visited him a few times after that. He was a small, shy man, almost a recluse. He lived all his life in the same small house with his sister. His distillery – Merlin’s cave – was just behind, all contained within the same fenced and gated compound. The distillery was as simple – some said primitive – as can be imagined: one ancient pot still, a lot of tubes, many demijohns, and not much light. More than one American visitor has been heard to murmur “OSHA would close this place in a minute.”

The wizard stoking his cauldron

That didn’t matter. What mattered was what came out of that pot still, whether it was the clear, first-run grappa or the espresso-dark, passed-through-several-woods aged grappa. The fact is that no one else made grappa like that, and no other grappa smelled or tasted like that. A direct-fire still and only one distillation (most commercially made grappa usually gets at least two) produced a spirit rich in congeners, which translate into the flavors we actually perceive. An absolutely pure spirit tastes of nothing at all. Levi’s had plenty of flavor and other things as well – so much methyl, the legend had it, that his grappas couldn’t be imported to the US. 

Were they fiery? For sure: This was real grappa, the way the country people used to make it for themselves. Romano’s father Serafino (his name still appeared on every label) had been an itinerant grappa-maker, towing his portable still around from farm to farm to distill each family’s grappa for their own use. In those days, country people drank grappa as medicine, to see them through the winter, to help digest all the polenta and rice that used to be so large a part of their diet, or even as a little toke of warmth to face a chilly morning.  I can testify to the bracing power of a little hit of caffè corretto on a chilly north-Italian morning.

Grappa has become a lot more fashionable these days. Nonino’s Ue and the soft, stylish grappas of Jacopo Poli have won high status in up-scale restaurants all around the world, most of them the sorts of places that would never have offered a Levi grappa.  Presentation has become at least as important as content, and fanciful, often quite lovely bottles have become commonplace. Grappa purists (there are many of us) smile a little condescendingly at that. Bruno Ceretto, a serious grappaiolo, once disgustedly said to me, “It’s not about grappa any more, it’s all about glassblowing.” The most prestigious distillery in Italy right now is probably Berta, which makes very refined, warm-amber grappas that are well along the road to cognac in appearance and aroma and flavor – nothing fiery or rustic there.

It wasn’t always that way, of course. When I first traveled in Italy, grappa was localized and a bit of an embarrassment – the trucker’s breakfast, from Tuscany to the Alps. If you asked for one to help digest an enormous Piedmontese dinner, you would first be offered Cognac, then an Italian brandy, and finally, with some disbelief that this was really what you wanted, a grappa. Gradually, however, a cult developed, and Romano Levi was one of the inspiring figures behind it. The question “Is there a local grappa?” became a talisman for my travels, an open-sesame that often led to a beaming “Yes there is, and I make it” response and an hour of conversation with another appassionato. In those years, as grappas got better and better, and began to catch on in Alpine ski resorts as a warming antidote to winter, Romano Levi started to become legend.

Stories about him abounded – for instance, about the German importer who promised to make him wealthy: “Send me 60,000 cases a year and I will sell every drop!” Romano, dismayed, said it was impossible. “6,000 then?” No, no, impossible. “600?” No. “What then? How many can you send me?” Romano, thoughtfully: “I could manage 6.”  “Only 6 cases?”  “Oh, no: 6 bottles.” Levi neither confirmed nor denied that story, but I have heard him say that he could bottle only 60 liters of grappa a week, because that was all the labels he could draw. And I know he was a lifelong subscriber to a newspaper he never read (and whose politics I’m pretty sure he disapproved of) because it was the perfect size to wrap his grappa bottles.

I suspect he would be embarrassed by the cult that has overtaken him posthumously: he really was a shy person. For him, the grappa was the point, and he worked tirelessly to make the real thing – warming, intense, a bit rustic, but tasting always of the soul of the vine. Happily for us, there are other distillers still making that kind of grappa – the Marolo brothers, for instance, who produce a whole battery of Piedmont grappas. And many winemakers have started taking a much more personal interest in the fate of their vinaccie, with the result that we can now get excellent grappas from many different sources: Jacopo Biondi-Santi’s Montepò estate gives a bracing Grappa di Morellino di Scansano, the Benanti family’s Etna estates give a lovely Grappa di Pietramarina, the Soave zone produces a diversity of fine grappas – for instance, Monte Tondo’s Grappa di Recioto di Soave.

So while the winter cold still assails us, pour yourself a hefty shot of grappa, and as you sip it (you should always sip a good grappa, never gulp it), smile a little smile in memory of the elfin little man whose spirit lives on in those spirits.